Abebe Bikila (1932 - 1973) MP

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Birthplace: Jato near Mendida, Ethiopia
Death: Died in Ethiopia
Cause of death: Cerebral hemorrhage
Managed by: June Barnes
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Abebe Bikila

Abebe Bikila (አበበ ቢቂላ) (August 7, 1932 – October 25, 1973) was a two-time Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia.

Abebe Bikila grew up in a typical village setting and received some church education. As a youth he was a good swimmer, Gena player, (a type of hockey played during Christmas), and horse rider. He moved to the capital city, Addis Ababa, when he was 17 and began a military carrier in the imperial bodyguard regiment.

There is an image if Abebe Bikila with his wife and daughter Tsige at http://moti-athletics-histo.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/abebe-bikila-black-african-breakthrough.html but his wife is not named.

Abebe Bikila's victory at the 1960 Olympic Games marathon was the first time that an Olympic gold medal had been won by a black athlete representing an African nation. Bikila prepared so intensely for the 1960 Games that he suffered a blister on his foot only days before the competition. Abebe decided to run the marathon in bare feet. The race was started at Campidglio Square and a barefooted Abebe did not run with the leaders until the 15-kilometer mark, where he started to gain momentum. By the 20-kilometer mark, only Abebe and Abdesselem Rhadi of Morocco were leaders. Rhadi was considered among the favorites for gold. At the 35-kilometer mark Abebe and Rhadi were running neck and neck. But with 1 kilometer left, Abebe pulled away, crossing the line in what was then a world best of 2:15:16.2 setting a new record about eight minutes quicker than the old record.

The marathon in Rome was the first Olympic marathon to be run in the evening in order to avoid the stifling summer heat. Abebe's triumph in Rome became a beacon for the generations of African runners that followed in his footsteps in the subsequent years.

Between 1960 and 1966, Bikila won 12 out of the 13 marathons he ran; his only loss was at the 1963 Boston Marathon where he finished fifth.

Abebe sealed his name in the record books at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Due to an appendectomy six weeks before the games, Bikila was far from the sole favourite. Running in shoes, he ran with the leaders of the pack right from the start. At the 20-kilometer mark, he pulled himself away from the front runners, and from that point on never looked back. He won gold with a time of 2 hours 12 minutes 11.2 seconds, beating his own record set in Rome. When he crossed the finish line, he showed no signs of fatigue but simply performed stretching exercises. Abebe became the first man in history to win back-to-back marathons.

Bikila started the 1968 Olympic marathon in Mexico City. Although confident that he could do it a third time, he dropped out of the race at the 15-kilometer mark (some reports say 17), due to a leg injury. It is reported he told fellow Ethiopian runner Mamo Wolde, "I cannot continue running because I am seriously ill. The responsibility of winning a gold medal for Ethiopia is in your shoulder." At that point Wolde took the lead, and won the gold medal.

In 1969, he suffered a broken neck and spinal cord injuries in a car accident that confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Abebe strengthened his hands and became skilled as an Archer. (See http://www.tadias.com/07/26/2008/remembering-olympic-hero-abebe-bikila/) In 1970, he participated in a 25KM cross-country sledge competition in Norway, where he won the gold.

Abebe was invited as a special guest to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich where he witnessed his countryman Mamo Wolde fail to match Bikila's twin marathon victories; Wolde finished third behind American Frank Shorter. After Shorter received his medal he went to Bikila to shake his hand.

Abeke Bilila died from a brain haemorrhage in 1973 at the age of just 41 but Bikila remains to this day an iconic name in athletics. He left a wife and four children.

His funeral in Addis Ababa was attended by 75,000 and Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia proclaimed a national day of mourning for Ethiopia’s national hero. Five years after his death, New York Road Runners inaugurated an annual award in his honour – the Abebe Bikila Award, which is given to individuals for their contribution to long-distance running.

A stadium in Addis Ababa is named in his honor. The American Community School of Addis Ababa dedicated its gymnasium to Abebe Bikila in the late 1960s. In August 2005, with the assistance of A Glimmer of Hope Foundation and its supporters Isabel and Dave Welland, an Oromo school named Yaya Abebe Bikila Primary Village School was erected in Bikila's honor by the local Mendida community. The school sits a few hundred meters from the remains of the village of Jato.


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Abebe Bikila's Timeline

August 7, 1932
Age 2

In October 1935, Mussolini launched the Second Italo-Abyssinian War and invaded Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie fled the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa on 2 May 1936 and the Italians entered the city on 5 May, after bloody battles.

Age 18

At about the age of 19, in 1951, he moved to Addis Ababa to follow his mother who now lived there. According to his daughter, Tsige Abebe, he was unemployed for a year but then joined the Imperial Bodyguard, the elite corps detailed to secure the Emperor’s protection.

Age 24
Age 27

On 13 December 1960, while Haile Selassie was on a state visit to Brazil, his Imperial Guard forces, led by General Mengitsu Neway, staged an unsuccessful coup, briefly proclaiming Selassie's eldest son Asfa Wossen as Emperor. Fighting took place in the heart of Addis Ababa, shells detonated inside the Jubilee Palace, and many of those closest to the Emperor were killed.

Bikila took no part in the uprising, but was briefly held in detention after the coup. Most of the surviving Guards were disbanded and dispersed. One newspaper remarked baldly: "Abebe owes his life to his gold medal."

Age 27

Bikila was added to the Ethiopian Olympic team only at the last moment, as the plane to Rome was about to leave, as a replacement for Wami Biratu, who had broken his ankle in a soccer match. Major Onni Niskanen entered Bikila and Abebe Wakgira in the marathon.

Adidas, the shoe sponsor at the 1960 Summer Olympics, had few shoes left when Bikila went to try out shoes and he ended up with a pair that didn’t fit comfortably, so he couldn't use them. A couple of hours before the race, Bikila decided to run barefoot, the way he'd trained for the race. Bikila was warned by Niskanen about his main rivals, one of whom was Rhadi Ben Abdesselam from Morocco, who was supposed to wear number 26. For unknown reasons, Rhadi did not acquire his black marathon bib before the race, and instead was wearing his regularly assigned track and field bib number 185.

The late afternoon race had its start point and finish at the Arch of Constantine, just outside the Colosseum.

During the race Bikila passed numerous runners as he searched for Rhadi's number 26. By about 20 km, Bikila and Rhadi (actually wearing number 185) had created a gap from the rest of the pack. Bikila kept looking forward to find the runner with number 26, unaware that Rhadi was running right beside him. They stayed together until the last 500 m, when Bikila sprinted to the finish line. Bikila won in a record time of 2:15:16.2, becoming the first Sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold medal. He finished 25 seconds ahead of Rhadi.

After the race, when Bikila was asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, “I wanted the world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism."

Age 28

In 1961, Bikila ran and won marathons in Greece, Japan, and Košice in Czechoslovakia.

Age 30

Bikila entered the 1963 Boston Marathon and finished in just 5th place—the only time in his career that he finished a marathon and did not win.

Age 31

40 days before the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, during a training run near Addis Ababa, Abebe Bikila started to feel pain. Unaware of the cause of the pain, he attempted to overcome this pain but collapsed. He was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. He was operated on and shortly thereafter and even during his recovery period he started jogging in the hospital courtyard at night.

Age 31

Abebe Bikila traveled to Tokyo but was not expected to compete. He did enter the marathon. He used the same strategy as in 1960: to stay with the leaders until the 20 kilometer point, then slowly increase his pace. After 15 km he only had company from Ron Clarke of Australia and Jim Hogan of Ireland. Shortly before 20 km only Hogan was in contention and by 30 km, Bikila was 40 seconds in front of Hogan and two minutes in front of Kokichi Tsuburaya of Japan in third place. He entered the Olympic stadium alone to the cheers of 70,000 spectators. He finished the marathon in a new world record time of 2:12:11:2; 4 minutes, 8 seconds in front of the silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain. Kokichi Tsuburaya was third. He was the first athlete in history to win the Olympic marathon twice. After finishing he astonished the crowd: not appearing exhausted, he started a routine of stretching exercises. He later stated that he could have run another 10 kilometers.

Bikila returned to Ethiopia to a hero's welcome once again. He was again promoted by the Emperor, and he received his own car, a white Volkswagen Beetle.